In September of 2011, two unpaid interns for Fox Searchlight filed suit against the major filmmaking corporation for breaking labor laws concerning the work they did for the film Black Swan, which grossed over $300 million worldwide in 2010. This year, their lawsuit was expanded to include anyone who has ever worked as an unpaid intern for Fox Searchlight.
As I returned to Boston College this fall as a senior, I have found myself, like many, discussing my summer, and the conversations I have with my friends inevitably turn to the myriad of unpaid internships we took to bolster our resumes, and get “a foot in the door” of the working world. From banks to news and radio stations, in both creative and more conventional fields, thousands of students, as well as the newly graduated, do unpaid work every year, with most never thinking twice about what this means to themselves and the job market. A quick poll of my friends found that 90 percent of them had at one point taken on an unpaid internship, whether during the school year or during the summer, and many had worked two or three in the course of their college career. An obvious catch-22, most don’t see an alternative. We do work for free so that we might land a paying job in the future.
One senior I spoke to took an unpaid internship from the same popular Internet retail site two summers in a row, even though it meant no stipend even for housing or commute, and working up to 50 hours a week. “It was a step up [this year] from last summer, when I would go stand in line at Shake Shack for everyone, and I don’t regret it, but a paycheck is something I am looking forward to with a real job,” she told me over lunch. Those around us nodded in agreement recalling our own internships, coffee and lunch runs, copy making, and package pick-ups. “I’ll feel a lot better when I’m doing meaningful paid work,” chimed in another girl. “I mean, my internship was useful in that it was a working experience, but I didn’t really learn anything.” Most people I spoke to agree that the overall internship experience is more about resume building than anything, and while office experiences can be meaningful and are not especially tolling, doing work for free still feels exactly as it sounds: like free labor. At ages 21 and 22, clocking hours in offices while doing the same jobs as full-time paid employees can feel a bit degrading. Thirty years ago, our parents would have never worked for free, to get a leg up or otherwise, and if others’ parents are anything like my own, they likely think it’s crazy that we do so now.
The biggest hang-up for many, I’ve found, is not in the internships at start-ups or non-profits who probably couldn’t afford the extra staff that is needed and give their interns meaningful responsibilities, but rather with the bigger corporations like banks and investment firms who could easily afford to pay interns at least minimum wage. Massachusetts labor laws state that an unpaid intern must receive the same training that would be provided in an educational environment, but may not do any work that advances the company in any way. To me, it sounds like many companies have no problem taking on unpaid interns to do menial office tasks that do not necessarily advance them as a company, but at the end of the day provide little to no educational advancement for the intern, creating a lose-lose situation for interns who are not getting paid, or learning anything. Is the resume boost worth it? I often asked myself this question while working a perfectly comfortable, but trivial, unpaid internship in Milwaukee this summer, especially as it meant fending off high-paying nannying jobs. At BC, where graduation is dependent on classes rather than credits, taking an internship for the latter is no real solution to a sticky modern problem. What is the solution then? While I don’t really have an answer to this loaded question, I know I can’t be the only one who thinks there has to be a better way.